You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Jeff Theman

I turned 40 years old yesterday – July 28, 2017. There was a time, just a couple years ago, where I didn’t think I’d survive and get to see this somewhat irrelevant milestone.

Preston at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio on 7/28/2017

Since 2008, there’s two days each year I take off from work – July 28th and October 4th. Every. Year. And, both involve me and my soulmate/souldog, Preston.

On July 6, 2006, Preston and two other dogs were confiscated from a home in Akron, Ohio – about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, where the owners allegedly used them for dogfighting purposes. I say allegedly because the owners were never charged with the animal cruelty crime, but instead on only illegal drug charges. From there the three “pit bull” dogs were brought to an area humane society where they were kept as evidence while the case moved forward. This was pre-Michael Vick, so the outrage around the country towards animal fighting “sports” wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. And in Ohio, where we had a statewide restriction (BSL) of “pit bull” dog ownership since 1987, these dogs taken from situations like this were typically systematically killed without much, if any, publicity at all.

After Preston was brought to the shelter, he was visited by a woman, Shana Klein, who owned a rescue – For The Love Of Pits, specifically for “pit bull” dogs in the northeast Ohio area, and began to walk him around the confines of their property. Along the way, because of the stance back then about dogs who came from this type of environment, the other two dogs brought in were killed, but Preston’s life was spared, temporarily at least, mostly due to being a shelter favorite.

On a Friday afternoon, the shelter gave a courtesy call to Shana, to notify her that Preston would be put to sleep at 4pm that day. She then hung up, and scurried to find a foster home where he can go. Luckily, she found a safe, temporary place, before being moved in with her, until I met him (in April 2008) and was able to officially adopt him on Saturday, October 4, 2008.

The entire encounter could be considered accidental – a coincidence of sorts, due to the only reason I was visiting the rescue to begin with, was for research on my documentary film, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent“, about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in Ohio, that labeled all “pit bull” dogs inherently vicious at birth. I knew there was something special about this dog, as I never felt the way I did about an animal when our eyes first locked. Within 15 minutes of meeting him, I had already made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog.

Soon after, the suburb of Cleveland I was living in – Lakewood, Ohio, proposed and passed a ban of pit bull dogs within their city limits, claiming the state law as being the primary reason for the legislation, which delayed my ability to adopt Preston. It took me nearly six months, and a new residence, which wasn’t easy, due to landlords perceptions of his alleged “breed”, but with perseverance, I was finally able to welcome him home.

One of the first photos I took of Preston after adoption in 10/2008

We began on a journey together, where we both took the time to understand and trust each other, which only helped to solidify our natural bond, while my editor and I went to work and finished the documentary. There were some lows during this time, such as my grandpa passing away in 2009, and the loss of the human version of the love of my life, but there were many highs as well, such as the 20-some screenings GTPI was screened at around the United States, and other recognition for our accomplishments because of it.

Then, towards the middle of 2014, I noticed I didn’t feel right, and things went south in a hurry. I was in the infancy stages of severe anxiety and crippling depression, mostly due to being outspoken about some of the problems I recognized in the field I had immersed myself in, as well as all the unnecessary pain and suffering – to both human and animal, I saw on a daily basis, which made me react in uncharacteristic ways. My mental health, as well as my reputation within the community I built a name in, was crashing and burning simultaneously together. Without getting into specifics, my personal life suffered greatly, too.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

I remember going to sleep nightly with all three of my dogs, holding Preston close to me with his head resting alongside mine on the pillow, and repeatedly telling him “I love you so much”, over and over and over again, until I drifted asleep. It became so bad that on the early morning of November 2, 2014, I closed the door to my home office and wrote what was to be my final blog entry titled “Save Me, and I’ll Save You“, with the intention of making it public, and then blowing my head clean off with my S&W 9mm. Weird, because I purchased that handgun for my and my dogs safety, but I never thought I’d have to protect myself from myself.

At the moment I decided to proceed, Preston nudged the door open with his nose. I took one look into those beautiful brown eyes of his, and wept. Preston prevented me from carrying out an action I had no way to take back.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

The following spring, I got into a serious auto accident, and suffered a concussion – the third of my life, from slamming into the cement highway guardrail on a pouring rain morning commute to the office. This manifested itself into post concussion syndrome a month or so later, which lasted for nearly a year. During this, I visited all three of Cleveland’s main hospitals seeking their help and expertise. They all prescribed several pharmaceuticals, which made my suicidal thoughts resurface again. I had no quality of life – I went to work, took my meds to ease the pain, went home after the 8 hour day, let out and fed the dogs, and was in bed by 7 that night…every night, most nights without dinner. I felt like a shell of myself, like a robot…numb to everything. I knew, this was not living.

On a January 2016 morning, I made the decision that if I am going to survive, I will need to do it myself. All by myself…but, with the help of my dogs, obviously. I threw away the prescriptions, and began venturing out in the cold with my camera and a dog (mainly Preston), photographing the urban decay of Cleveland. There’s something beautiful about rust and graffiti-laced, dilapidated vacant buildings, and the way they appear in the dead of winter. Bringing one of my dogs with me served two purposes. They still needed to be walked, and it gave me a companion to be a pair of eyes for me while I get lost in the moment framing my next shot.

A scene captured at Euclid Beach in Cleveland, Ohio in 02/2016

Art and expressing my creative self was one of the things that was missing prior to, and by reintroducing it back into my life, it was the therapy that temporarily took away the pain I was in. My dogs – specifically Preston, were the only reason that kept me from “pulling the trigger” – both figuratively and literally speaking. Which bought me time to get myself better – mentally and physically, again.

Since, I still have some bad days, but they’re not as often as before. Each day my well-being gets a little better. Because of those experiences, I am now armed with a new sense of what’s important, and the message it has with the creation of this start up non-profit (filing still pending) organization I founded, WOOFobia, because I noticed a growing need for more advocacy work which includes both dog and their human counterpart. Especially with the spike in cases of mental illness, and trend of them being brushed aside where nobody wants to talk about it, which leads to more suffering of all at the hands of it.

Back on July 28, 2006, I was at my local Honda dealership buying a brand new car for a birthday present to myself, at the exact same time Preston’s life was scheduled to expire. When the rescue stepped up and fate saved him from his demise, it happened on my birthday. His new life started the day we celebrate mine. Some things are just supposed to happen, like celebrating the human-canine bond with your best friend, hero and soulmate (or souldog), as we do every July 28th and October 4th, since we crashed into each other’s lives.

It brings up the age old question – who rescued whom?

— Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
River Fire Films, LLC, Filmmaker/Director/Producer

— To submit your “You Had Me At WOOF” story, click HERE! —

breed discrimination

To Err Is Human

Humans are exceptionally complex beings. The same can also be said for other species who we coexist together with on this planet, especially those we share our homes with, such as dogs. In its simplest form, like us, they are not only in the world, but aware and conscious of it. They are sentient individuals who depend on the same basic principles for survival as we do – air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink.  Also like us, they desire shelter, companionship, freedom of movement, and the avoidance of pain.

But, too often, we attempt to simplify and compartmentalize individuals by broad, sweeping generalizations, regularly by stereotyping by appearance or physical traits. We do this naturally to be more efficient in life by fitting everything into neat, little boxes, to help satisfy our intuition to quickly analyze, and possibly predict our world around us, to avoid a potential threat to our well-being. These mental shortcuts we learn from family, friends, peers and other influences, such as the media, are a result of how we process and communicate “knowledge”, especially those with negative associations – whether we are directly or indirectly affected by them.

There are many examples that can be found where an accident is not a matter of life and death. We chalk it up to “To Err Is Human”, which is used to exonerate any fault or blame, and say – “No harm, no foul”. But, what about cases where zero error in judgement is imperative and expected, and comes with a price if and when it does occur?

Laws like Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) – or breed discrimination (BDL) to be more accurate, which target certain breeds or types of dogs as inherently vicious at birth, are found in all 3 types of developed human settlements – urban, rural and suburban environments. They can include one or more targeted breeds/types of canine, which almost always includes at least “pit bull” dogs. Here in the United States, these laws can be enforced as a restriction (i.e…liability insurance, public muzzling, special containment, among others) or an outright ban, and can be implemented at every level of government – Federal (i.e. Military bans), the State, or local municipality (county, city, town, etc.).

In other countries, it can be implemented in a region of land independently governed – i.e. a Province, as is the case with Ontario, Canada; or in places like the United Kingdom, which incorporates 4 separate countries – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, to name a world example. Branched off of the actual laws (as in, legislation), there is also policy that can and has discriminated towards one or more breeds/types of dog, including the insurance (home and rental) and housing industries, as well as animal boarding/grooming corporate policies.

These laws enacted by government are oftentimes used as a tool by law enforcement and humane agencies, directed at specific classes of people (social, or even racial, prejudice), due to the way laws work where you cannot draft legislation that discriminates against a protected class…Dog owners are not a protected class. There’s internet memes that have become running jokes about the inability to accurately identify dogs via visual identification alone. These images display half a dozen or so images of various items and all are labeled ‘Pit Bull” beneath them to comically show the plight of the cause.

The chore to enforce and carry out the laws are often bestowed upon the the local municipality’s Animal Control Department, which frequently produces subjective identification practices, and otherwise innocent dogs (if not for the subjective law) are impacted – at times even with the loss of their own life. None of this, mind you, is due to how that individual dog actually behaved, but simply because their physical appearance resembles that of a targeted dog – We should all hope to be defined by only what we do, say and how we act.

Although the following scenario presented below humorously characterizes the failure of enforcement and makes a case against the laws and policies which identify dogs as vicious due to breed/type, the real life situations of families and their pets affected are anything but funny. They’re downright scary.

This morning, I drove to the local grocery store near me – Giant Eagle in Parma, Ohio (the city of Parma has a ban of “pit bull” dogs since the 80’s) to pick up a few items needed to make breakfast for me and my three dogs. It’s an every weekend ritual we do. First, I went to the produce section and grabbed some bananas, then ventured to the bread and dairy aisles to grab English muffins and butter spread. And then, on towards the checkout registers I then went.

Passing through, I stopped at a rack that had an assortment of pet related items, like the dog bowls below with photographs of breed specific dogs to attract those who adore those certain breeds.

First, there was one with PUG on the side, and a photo of a typical looking Pug inside…

Next, BICHON, with a typical Bichon Frise…

LAB, with a typical black Labrador Retriever puppy…

A BOXER with a typical Boxer…

Then, AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD, with a typi-…{abrupt record scratch sound}, Say what?!?

Now, we understand that this can also go against us, because we are looking at a photo of a dog and also visually identifying the breed, but we’d like to think in no way would someone say the dog inside this bowl conforms to an Australian Shepherd (see AKCs photo).

Clearly this was human error at the manufacturing plant these bowls are mass produced at. Nobody got harmed. We can all have a good chuckle at the expense of them. There’s always tomorrow to correct this mistake.

But, through this, there’s a strong argument that can be made which shows the very reason these laws and policies are inept – human error. Additionally, animal control departments serve primarily one function – to keep the city safe from potentially dangerous dogs and other animals.

If we are to truly be serious and want to protect our communities from dangerous dogs, we need general, breed-neutral dog laws, with an emphasis on behavior, so the focus doesn’t get sidetracked from the actual problem.

Our first widespread initiative at WOOFobia is focusing the attention on removing any law or policy that singles-out any dog by looks alone, in any place around the world, to help ensure all dogs are judged on a level playing field, and to secure and celebrate the all-important Human-Canine Bond. Because, killing innocent family dogs who have done no wrong, is something that does not deserve forgiveness, and should be placed in the history books with all other forms of discrimination and intolerance.

There just is no rational or logical reason for the law – short of fear-based propaganda. We invite you to join us in this fight. To collaborate and/or volunteer, Contact Us HERE!